Nicole Gilbert (these days DJ Nicole Leone) was the very first radio plugger employed by NZ On Air, back in 1998. Leaving NZ on the eve of Christmas 1999 to catch up with soon-to-be-hubby Kirk Harding, these days she’s well established as a Greencard holding celebrity DJ in New York City and single mom to a 10-year old son. Last year she featured in a Motorola commercial about people doing things differently, pictured rollerskating, mothering and DJing in a commercial that played on those big billboard screens in Times Square. Though from a radio background, Nicole says she’s had more airtime on TV in the U.S. than radio. She was in season two of the DJ reality show, Master of the Mix, and had a segment on another show called Celebrity Ghost Stories.
NZM: Where in NZ are you from and how did you initially get involved with music?
Nicole: I’m from a small seaside town in Wellington called Pukerua Bay. Growing up very close to nature, my family of eight would spend approx 8-10 weeks of the year living on our boat with (no TV or radio, and solar showers). Just a couple of guitars and harmonicas on board, so music had a constant presence.
At 10 I got a double cassette ghetto blaster, boom box that I started dominating the soundwaves with and making mix tapes on. I remember hearing Grandmaster Flash for the first time, like ’Whoa!’ My father (country, rock) and brothers (punk rockers) all played and sang, two brothers were in bands. Mum was a piano teacher (classical) and I was a ballet dancer for 10 years, along with show jumping ‘til 14.
I started clubbing at a young age and it opened up my world. I lived with a DJ boyfriend so I started getting on the turntables at home, and one brave night he let me on the decks at Sub Club where he was spinning. I recall being terrified, I didn’t get back on the tables in a club again until NYC in 2000.
I started my second year of [Victoria] uni and had entered a competition for an on air announcer for a new radio station called The Heat, it was for mouth of the south and I won. I left uni to pursue this enticing new career. I was promotions manager and the local voice for two years when I was headhunted by Polygram Records who relocated me to Auckland where I was National Promotions Manager.
After that I was Promotions Manager at Mai FM, I was also doing V/O work and was on Max TV for a stint. I worked briefly at Festival Records and as MD started Shock Records‘ NZ office.
One bright day, Brendan Smyth from NZ On Air approached me to be involved in this amazing new programme he had developed to increase the amount of NZ music on commercial radio and I fell in love with the mission! With Brendan and I (mainly Brendan truth be told), the committed artists, and the receptive radio programmers, NZ music content went from 1.7% to double digits. It was a very exciting time. We could see greater opportunities for NZ musicians opening up as we worked.
It wouldn’t have been easy to pack up and leave that good situation – what was the reason you left NZ?
I wasn’t ready to really settle down, and I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond. I was keen to grow and experience the world on a larger scale. I went straight to the Big Apple! It was the most creative and exciting city I had been to (twice in the ’90s) and it seemed full of opportunity. Americans truly celebrate success and it felt like anything was possible in New York City, concrete jungle where dreams are made of kinda stuff. I mean there’s so many people here you can open a pickle store in Bed-Stuy, or a water bar in Manhattan, and make a living.
What preparations did you have to make from NZ before leaving?
I thought I was prepared with my resume, my Karen Walker suit and my records. I had no job lined up, yet I was fully confident I would land one in the music industry here. I was dedicated and passionate to work with music. Little did I know the industry in USA, the climate was changing, expansion was slowing, I would require sponsorship and possibly a year of paperwork, and… I was totally unknown here.
I needed an income ASAP, so I wasn’t considering internships, and in 2000 I took a job waiting tables in a restaurant/lounge, a rite of passage for many migrating to NY. When I saw the lounge DJ nodding off on his gig, I approached the manager and asked if I could come and play for free next week, opening for the DJ, as I had a whole lot of soul and funk records but nothing to play them on. She said okay and within a week the DJ was fired and I had my first gig. I was then spinning Wiliiamsburg loft parties, exciting times, always plenty of break dancers, artists. Destiny was underway, and my record collection was growing.
Can you remember the first musical friends you made in NYC?
I made friends and connections everywhere I worked and everyone was really passionate about music if they werent in it, they were an actor, performer, or artist of some sort. In 2002 my now ex-husband [Kirk Harding] introduced me to my dear friend and mentor Operator Emz, also Dart La from Shady Records who gave me my DJ name.
DJing is all I’ve done professionally since 2003. I DJed through my pregnancy at the W Hotels – still on vinyl then. I recall coming home in a taxi in a snow storm and when we pulled up to my apartment the driver just clicked open the trunk and didn’t even get out to help me get out my three crates of vinyl. I was seven months preggo and I’ve never seen another pregnant DJ. When my son was born it still proved to be a great job, as he would sleep home with dad, and I would DJ. One night I forgot my breast pads so I’m trying to spin with this milk leaking through my red shirt for all to see, makes me chuckle to look back on those days.
I recall DJing with Akon and running off stage after my set to nurse little six-week old Kingston. He is 10 now, and along with his dad, I have a good network of caregivers if needs be to pick him up from school or whatever.
Do you manage yourself or do you work with an agency?
I’ve always handled everything myself. All my residencies have been for years. I’ve worked hard, always been professional, and I’ve built great relationships that bring return business. Last month I hired a booking agent so let’s see.
What would you regard as your biggest success since leaving NZ?
It’s hard to pick one. Getting the US TV shows was a buzz. Each and every time I have played for great artists including Prince, 50 Cent, Erykah Badu, Sting, Jamie Foxx, Peewee Herman and Rihanna, it’s no less exciting. I went to Cannes last year for a Harvey Weinstein party with No8 in Chelsea, and I opened for Boy George (I was a fan of Culture Club as a tween and it was the first pop music my mum and I both liked), a sentimental highlight.
DJing in Kingston, Jamaica was big for me in 2009, I DJed with Cancer of Stone Love. Next to no female DJs in Jamaica, and that’s where the culture originated. Ladies and gents alike were very welcoming.
What’s your scene like? What kind of people do you work with and hang out with?
My scene ranges from Brooklyn tweens to single and married moms, club kids/nightlife people of all ages, music lovers. I’m friends with a lot of female DJs, and other people in nightlife. Sometimes I feel like I lead a double life balancing being mummy and DJ. My mom friends don’t go out much but when they do they have a blast. My club and DJ friends are out constantly. I have friends I hike and go to the gym with… I have a friend who’s a shaman and one is an animal behaviourist. It’s all sorts really.
How would you describe what you do as a DJ?
My DJ roots are in hip hop, I have always played RnB, reggae, soul, funk, disco etc. Now I incorporate (depending on the event) a much broader range if need be. I can spin rock from ‘50s, ‘60s and up, also salsa bachata, merengue, reggaeton, EDM, trap, New Jersey club (to name a few) and pop – I put it all together.
I’m an open format party rocker. I’ve always danced so I’m constantly moving when I’m spinning, in fact I can’t stop. I have a lot of energy. I mostly play what I like but sometimes I have to play big songs I don’t personally like, but 99% of the room does. I’ve developed a great relationship with the fashion brand Moschino so they dress me for events, and I spin theirs.